2 June 2013

Album Review: Scott Walker

Scott Walker
'The Collection 1967-1970'

Together for the first time, Scott Walker’s first five solo albums on vinyl and CD. Cut and mastered from the original tapes and presented with their original artwork, The Collection showcases Scott’s self-written material alongside his much documented interpretations of composers such as Jacques Brel. 

The career of Scott Walker is an assemblage of chapters as diverse as they are plentiful. He has experienced remarkable success and disappointing failure, incomprehension, veneration, obstinate dismissal, philosophic respect and been the receiver of more than his fair share of frivolous conjecture provoked by the reclusive nature of his long periods spent disengaged from society. This inclination to retreat from view is quite likely a consequence of earlier successes and not, as some will have you believe, another enigmatic link in the esoteric chemistry of the man. During the mid-60's he fronted pop trio The Walker Brothers who very quickly shot to stardom with their brooding symphonic pop tunes bolstered by his outstanding baritone vocal. Their biggest hit 'The Sun Aint Gonna Shine Anymore' earned them a fan base bigger than that of The Beatles and they became teen idols overnight. Artistic differences and internal squabbling soon reared into view which sent Scott Walker into a heavy depression and ultimately ended the band in 1967. Scott proceeded onwards as a solo artist and between 1967 - 1970 released 5 albums.

(Sept 1967)
His debut solo album displayed the first real examples of just how good his creative impulse was. A collection of original songs and cover versions which completely broke away from the limiting constraints of The Walker Brothers pop formula, he unravelled a myriad of free thinking concepts and a highbrow lyrical prowess to match. The sweeping wall of orchestral arrangement threading its way through each song varies from bombastic theatre to subtle proclamation. The distinctive baritone croon is achingly perfect especially so on the majestic 'Montague Terrace' and equally impressive 'Always Coming Back To You'  His brooding melancholy picks out each song and dresses it in magnificent finery until they all radiate equally and reinforce the power and sheer proficiency at work. His passion for the work of Belgian singer/songwriter Jacques Brel is given a clear nod here with 3 of his songs 'Mathilde 'My Death' and 'Amsterdam' translated into English and covered by Scott.

(March 1968)
His second solo album, released in 1968, was to become his biggest commercial success so far but without any visible difference that might have set it apart from the rest. He sticks to the same formula of his debut, another collection of covers and original compositions and again the sensual Baroque pop sound of lush melodies and fine orchestral arrangements drenching each part of the record with cascading overtures and elements of brass and strings kept in time by occasional jaunts of drumbeat and scattered acoustic guitar. Once more Scott Walker unfurls his art within the creations of Jacques Brel (Jackie, Next, The Girl And The Dogs) amid a reading of the Bacharach & David song ‘The Windows Of The World' and  a muscular interpretation of 'Wait Until Dark' from the Henry Mancini film. The self-penned inclusions though stand-out from the rest, his almost epic 6 minute creation 'Plastic People' gushes with orchestration across the sometimes perplexing lyrics. The ever flowing tribute to suburban serenity in bizarrely titled 'The Amorous Humphrey Plugg’, cantering carousel waltz 'The Girl From The Streets' and heartfelt lament 'The Bridge'

(March 1969)
The nonchalance and the poetic reflection cloaks the mournful balladeer in his melancholy. Scott Walkers third album bristles with evocative ferment and occasional wretchedness which sees him begin to move on from the variety of styles his previous two albums were built upon. A concerto of cynical contemplation almost, as the man slowly begins to find himself, to finally unearth his true identity from within the confines of his restless expeditions. This album isn't heavy on romance but instead seems to be driven by a plundering need to reminisce for what’s gone, a desire to serenade the past and the ghosts of regret which still haunt the soul searching for closure. His soothing baritone delivery on 'It's Raining Today' is coupled with violin and cello at its middle which further promotes an atmosphere already hypnotic in its depths. A promiscuity lost to advancing years now feels tarnished and shameful, a tale told on 'Big Louise' as, again, the glance backwards is felt    'she's a haunted house, and her windows are broken and the sad young man's gone away'. The meticulous attention to detail has never been compromised and the subtle string arrangements on ‘Two Ragged Soldiers' is just one of numerous little flourishes that constantly build from the back without ever being glaringly apparent. Although this was the first of his albums that contained far more original material than the others he still made room for the customary Jacques Brel eulogy giving it the space of the last 3 tracks – 'Sons Of' 'Funeral Tango' and 'If You Go Away'.

(November 1969)
The fourth album, released in 1969, is an entirely self-penned collection of originals with not a Jacques Brel cover to be seen. On the back cover of the album appears the quote "a man's work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened" Again the voice is flawless throughout, soaring, hovering and diving through, between and underneath the music which is equally as volitant in manner traversing through a selection of gernres, profoundly folk, country and soul. A restrained violin/bass guitar backdrop punctuates opener 'The Seventh Seal' while 'The Worlds Strongest Man' gets its identity from the lounge-esqe vocal he spins onto it. Indulgent war story 'The Old Man’s Back Again' unveils a new level of intellectual lyricism when ploughing into the subject matter of the Neo-Stalinist Regime. 'Rhymes Of Goodbye' distributes soul filled pop evenly and with a considerable pastiche. David Bowie and Radiohead have both named the album as a huge inspiration on their work.

(December 1970)
The disappointing and surprising lack of commercial success for Scott 4 was a huge impact on the 
confidence Scott Walker had been flying on when making these records and now his creativity found itself wondering where it had went wrong. This, his fifth solo album, feels a little unsettled and imperceptive compared to previous work and, as if to make up for the failed Scott 4, staggers around grabbing at commercialism and settles in the main for playing it safe with a return to the originals/covers formula he had only just ditched on the previous ‘Scott 4’ in a clear attempt to regain the momentum. That said this is still a fantastic album. Orchestrated instrumental ‘Epilogue’ with it's echoing door slams and the voices of children leads us out onto the terrace of a great record, standout tracks include ‘Thanks For Chicago Mr James’ the jazzy zing of ‘Joe’ and the sardonic-wit fuelled ‘Jean The Machine

My landlady said Jean's a commie spy
And each time I asked for the reason why
My landlady said it's a front
She bumps and grinds codes
To an audience of immigrants
The title track, a joyless break-up ballad, is equally as laudable. The 15 track album includes 5 insignificant and easily forgettable cover versions of songs, among them the Michael Legrand favourite (What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life) Classic IV’s (Stormy) and Jimmie Rodgers (It’s Over).  This was to be the last solo album of original material would make for 8 years.

Scott Walker, the epitome of sixties nostalgia - from teen idol to rich voiced baritone crooner. A hugely inventive and massively talented individual with the greatest legacy spread out behind him. Intriguing and perplexing he may be but his songs, particularly the songs of these first 5 albums, are emotive heavyweights still.

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